A True Artist

We lost Jesse Winchester last week. I’m sad because he was the real deal and not enough people knew that. Robbie Robertson “discovered” Jesse in 1969 when I was working as The Band’s tour manager and as I recall Jesse couldn’t come into the U.S. because he had fled to Canada to escape the draft. He made a great record that Robbie produced, but he never reached the James Taylor level of stardom. Listen to this song he sang on an Elvis Costello TV program and look how it affected Elvis and Neko Case.

 

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Guy Time Running Out

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Ben Ratliff’s rumination on the Coachella Music Festival raises an important cultural issue and then just drops it. Ratliff wonders if the audience has become more important than the performers–and who is that audience?

One is a young man who bangs his body around to show you that he has been to the gym, or that he has a basically competitive attitude. He has grown simpler over the history of the festival. He wears black sunglasses, sleeveless shirt or none at all, backward baseball cap or headband, a water-pack on his back. He is a flat, hardy example of power and privilege. He seems to have no history. If style is something specific to a time or place that pleases the eye and the mind, he has no style. His time is running out. (Don’t blame him. Blame globalism, the major banks, professional sports.)

By contrast, Ratliff notes that the woman in the audience “looks more flexible, curious and specific to the region” and that the music pitched at them has more nuance than the EDM the guys flock to. But by going on to describe the wonderful women performers at the festival, Ratliff does not pursue the truly existential question he raises. Is a culture aimed at buffed out knuckleheads with their caps on backwards devolving into meaninglessness?

I don’t just mean EDM or the blatant sexism of a good deal of hip hop. I mean a movie business that seems trapped in a Spiderman 4, Fast and Furious 7 trope aimed at the young men with no history. I mean a video game industry unable to escape the first person shooter adreniline rush and a web culture built around sites like Reddit that celebrate the obnoxious know it all geek life that “has no style”. I don’t know how we get out of this trap thinking that young guys are the only audience for entertainment, but I know we have to do it.

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Silence, Exile, Cunning

I’m going to take a long summer break from blogging. I have a book to write and that will take all of my creative energies. You can always friend me on Facebook where I post links to things I’m reading.

 

JT

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The War is Over

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We may look back at President Obama’s speech yesterday declaring a shift in counter-terrorism strategy, as one of the most important addresses of the last 20 years.

For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home. Our service members and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf.

Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield or brought the shadows of battle back home. From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children.

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

It has been the contention of this writer that American renewal cannot begin until “The Long War” ends. Part of the problem is the President’s realization how right Madison really was.

Meanwhile, we strengthened our defenses, hardening targets, tightening transportation security, giving law enforcement new tools to prevent terror. Most of these changes were sound. Some caused inconvenience. But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy. And in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values — by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.

So a good start in restoring Democracy will be to change the Administration’s policy on Press Freedom.

President Obama ordered a review on Thursday of the Justice Department’s procedures for legal investigations involving reporters, acknowledging that he was “troubled” that multiple inquiries into national security leaks could chill investigative reporting.

But the much bigger task will be to rethink the whole National Security State that has grown exponentially since 9/11. So while I agree with Obama that, “we must define our effort not as a boundless global war on terror but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America”, that does not mean we need the massive  domestic counter-terrorism industrial complex that has gorged itself on the public treasury with little to show for it as the Washington Post pointed out in their breakthrough “Top Secret America”.

We have a long way to go before we can really begin America 3.0–the renewal project I have been talking about since the eve of the 2008 market crash. Obama’s speech yesterday was a start down that road. Let us not underestimate the forces that profit from being in a perpetual state of war. Senator Saxby Chamblis spoke for them yesterday.

Some Republicans expressed alarm about Mr. Obama’s shift, saying it was a mistake to go back to the days when terrorism was seen as a manageable law enforcement problem rather than a dire threat.

“The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit.”

I have been feeling that Washington is just some sort of reality show, in which everyone–politicians, press and lobbyists are playing their role according to a script. But this fight over the end of the Global War on Terror is actually important to those of us who believe power and taxes must be handed over to the states and cities. Ultimately the whole Federal establishment will get smaller. Congressional Staffs, Federal Bureaucracies and most importantly the Pentagon and Homeland Security will shrink. The DC property bubble will burst and Lobbyists will be less important. How long Saxby Chambliss and his forces can fight a rear guard effort against the inevitable is probably the most important story of the next 12 months.

Posted in Barack Obama, Interregnum, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

Political Paralysis

I went to Washington DC this week to pick up an award for my work on Advertising and Piracy from the Global Intellectual Property Center, which is a part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The irony will not escape many long time readers of this blog, as I have been critical of the Chamber, especially around the issues of transparency in corporate campaign finance. But I believe strongly that our country is committing financial and cultural suicide when it comes to protecting the rights of artists, so you take your allies where you can get them. I couldn’t resist in my acceptance speech noting the irony.

I want to finish with one thought. As I said this is primarily an issue of transparency and I’m glad the Chamber is for transparency in the advertising business. At the risk of biting the hand that has fed me well today, I would ask that the Chamber also support transparency in corporate donations to politicians.  Once again, thank you very much for your support.

When it was all over a man who works for Homeland Security on IP issues thanked me for my work and then we got into a discussion about his job. It turns out he hasn’t had a permanent boss in four years, because the Senate held up the appointment of Obama’s first nominee and now the vetting process for a second nominee is taking months because of an excess of caution. The story seemed so indicative of the mood in Washington I felt in the two days I was there. Everyone seems resigned to paralysis being the new normal. The Republican minority sees it’s task as just gumming up the works to make sure Obama can’t accomplish anything. And the Democrats sometimes display a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: knowing they are being held hostage, they display cordiality towards their captors.

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Meanwhile the news media continues to hunt for disaster stories that will increase the citizens sense of fear and dependency. This little item from the Wall Street Journal, showing a dramatic improvement in the deficit went unnoticed and uncommented on Capitol Hill or other organs of the MSM. It is almost impossible to create an optimistic narrative in Washington, so the best option for me is to return my focus to the Golden State. In California, progressives control both the legislature and the executive branch. Remarkable changes are beginning to happen. The state’s finances are coming into balance after the recent tax rise and money is being spent improving our infrastructure and supporting education. The very idea that Los Angeles could be come a walkable community with a great public transportation system seemed impossible five years ago and yet in a year I will be able to ride the light rail from Santa Monica to USC.

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I figure if California can once again assume its role as the architect of America’s future, then many states will follow. If we work on the pillars of the new strategy that Patrick Doherty and Mark Mykleby have been advocating: affordable college, walkable cities, low carbon transportation, regenerative agriculture and resource productivity, we will forge an example for both the nation and the world. Let’s ignore Washington and get on with our own optimistic future.

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Fear Itself

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Waiting in the airport for my plane back to LA, I heard one of the CNN bloviators describe the last four days as a “Reign of Terror”. The mind boggles. I don’t mean to discount Boston’s tragedy and obviously these two crazy kids managed to kill four people and wound quite a few others, but by what measure was the 60 hours after the original bomb blast a “Reign of Terror”? Only by the measure of a fear obsessed 24/7 media culture that has taken the old, “if it bleeds, it leads” adage of the tabloids to its natural conclusion.

Lets step back and think about the quality of “terrorist” that has menaced America post 9/11. As incompetent a collection of losers and Osama wannabes as one could imagine. The shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, and now these two confused Chechens. Here is my assumption about the Boston Bombers. The older brother, having been denied US citizenship because he beat up his girlfriend, becomes alienated and starts hanging out on Islamist web sites. Meanwhile the younger brother, already an American citizen is almost preternaturally assimilated into US youth culture. He’s handsome, smokes pot, has lots of girl friends and dresses like a typical hip hopster. The older brother comes back from a trip to Chechnya talking Jihad and the younger brother is too stoned to resist the manic appeal of his beloved brother to participate in the planting of the bombs, which the older brother has manufactured off of Islamist website recipes.

But they are the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They are clueless to the fact that any big city in America has almost complete surveillance coverage of its streets. They don’t even think of trying to escape! The little brother goes out and gets stoned with his friends the night after the Marathon. It’s only the next morning when he realizes that he might need his car, which is in the shop getting repaired. By the time both their pictures are on TV, they are in a state of complete panic. You can almost hear the younger brother pleading with his sibling, “what the fuck did you get me into?”

When the inevitable happens and they are cornered by the cops, they comically try to throw one of their IED’s at the cops, only to have it bounce 20 feet in front of them, explode and fill their own legs full of shrapnel.

But if you were to tune into Cable news on Thursday or Friday, you would have not heard about this Opera Bouffe, but rather be confronted with all the post 9/11 Terror in our Cities graphic packages, complete with scary music. A whole city shut down for 24 hours over what should have been treated as a high level SWAT operation. Was there anyone who even dared to ask if this was really the appropriate reaction?

As I have been saying for a while, the default setting for American media and finance culture for at least the last 12 years has been FEAR. It has forced us to overreact in almost every sector. It forced us into two unnecessary wars. It forced us to bail out the big banks at the public expense. It has kept Americas great companies from investing in our future, preferring to hold $trillions in cash on their balance sheets for what they are assured is the coming shitstorm where they will no longer be able to borrow. And few realize that most of the Great Wall Street fortunes made in this period have been by taking advantage of the fear culture. The whole hedge fund economy is based on taking a short position (betting on failure) and then “talking your book” so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. How did John Paulson accumulate one of the great fortunes of our time? By designing a securitized bundle of mortgages that HE KNEW WOULD FAIL, taking the short side of the trade and then getting some suckers (fooled by the AAA rating) to take the long side.

Nothing productive has come out of this fear culture. Despite the constant barrage of bad news, the world has actually gotten better in the last 12 years. Millions have been lifted out of poverty. Life expectancies have improved. More women and minorities  are being educated and are taking positions of power. Cars are getting more efficient and less polluting. But for a tabloidized media culture, these are not interesting stories. And for speculative capitalism, good news does not bring instant windfalls like a great short play.

As a society we have to realize that Franklin Roosevelt was right when he said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” America’s innovation culture was not built by being risk averse, just the opposite. Just how the media and the stock speculators could heed Roosevelt’s advice is of course the much larger question.

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Back to the Future

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As you know, I have been in a rather sour state about digital culture in the past couple of months. I didn’t come to New York City with the express intention of taking the cure for that state, but I got it nonetheless. The first treatment was the opening night of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. Five solid hours of (mostly) blues played with both acoustic instruments and vintage electric guitars pumped through tube amps,  that mimicked the glorious Marshall’s and Fenders of the time when I was on the road.

There were moments that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Eric Clapton, Andy Fairweather and Vince Gill sitting down on acoustic guitars, trading incredible licks. A shuffle blues with Robert Cray, Jimmy Vaughn, Gary Clarke Jr, BB King and Eric that just was extraordinary. That BB King can still swing at 88 is incredible. And Jimmy Vaughn played a solo that had Eric grinning from ear to ear in admiration. And then there was a whole new generation of players like Doyle Bramhall, Citizen Cope, Gary Clark Jr and a 13 year old named Quinn Sullivan who just blew us away. In the end, the Allman Brothers played the classic shuffle, Statesboro Blues with Taj Mahal and Los Lobos. What a gorgeous cultural stew celebrating this most American of art forms.

What is so important about the Blues is that it is a relatively structured form of 12 bars, but one that allows for the most ecstatic improvisation (think Jimmy Hendrix) possible. What was so therapeutic was that the night confirmed that the art form is alive and well–a deep relief from a frightfully inauthentic cultural period.

This morningI went up to the Gagosian Gallery, where my acquaintance Ed Ruscha has an amazing show of small books, curated by Bob Monk. Ruscha started making small books in  1962 with “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”. He continued to make these small editions of everyday sights like swimming pools, parking lots and even a wonderful “Royal Road Test” in which he and two collaborators fiendishly documented throwing a Royal typewriter out the window of his vintage Oldsmobile on a desert highway.  As clever as Ed’s books are, what is really amazing is the mini industry of copycat projects from conceptual artists all over the world. What Ruscha’s show poses is the same question I had from the night before. Why in an age of digital appropriation would you go back to making art that was proudly analogue? Why would you return to books when the Whitney Museum is filled with Video screens. Why make simple blues music when you could avail yourself of all the samples and beats from Pro-tools? These are important questions and I think they represent some sort of counter movement, what Marcuse would have called a Great Refusal.

Long live Books and The Blues.

Posted in Art | Tagged , | 28 Comments

New Normal

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Friday’s employment numbers have caused many analysts to set their hair on fire. Initially the Dow fell more than 100 points before saner money returned in the afternoon. This reinforces a theme I have been pursuing on these pages for the last year. For 22 years since George Soros made $1.5 Billion in a week, shorting the British Pound and forcing the Bank of England to devalue the currency on Black Wednesday, September 16, 1992, most of the great fortunes on Wall Street have been made short selling. Since that time, with the rise of the Hedge Fund Industry, built to take advantage of the misery of others–be they firms or whole countries as with Soros and the UK or with Paul Singer’s current pusuit of Argentina. The great fortunes made during the 2008 crash, were those betting the market would crash. Exhibit A would be John Paulson, who actually designed the catastrophically toxic mortgage securities, that he then arranged for Goldman Sach’s and his other banking partners to sell to money managers after they had paid the ratings services Moodys, S & P and Fitch to rate this crap AAA. This is what my finance mentor Richard Rainwater used to call a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. John Paulson bought all the short positions in these toxic bonds that he had designed to blow up and then just waited for the sound of the explosion to collect his billions.

Unfuckingbelievable.

And these guys are not in jail?

Anyway, back to my thesis. The great fortunes of the next fifty years will be made betting on the upside of an emerging global democratic capitalism that actually capable of delivering smart and reasonably priced services to all classes of society. People who bet on the short side are going to be the fools of the future. I agree with Ruy Teixeira, The Whole World is Getting Much, Much Better.

For many on the left, a positive attitude toward economic growth and globalization seems counterintuitive. After all, isn’t there a basic lack of progress in the world today—aren’t things just getting worse rather than better?

No, in fact they’re getting better — much better — and that is despite trends toward increased inequality which have damped down economic advance for average citizens in some countries. Consider the American case, where trends toward inequality have been particularly serious. In 1947, the median family income in the US was around $27,000 in today’s dollars. Today, median family income is around $61,000. Looked at another way, in 1947, 60 percent of families made under $30,000. But today only around 20 percent make less than that figure and 40 percent make over $75,000, a figure that was exceeded by less than 5 percent of families in 1947.

So let’s go back to those unemployment numbers and see why all this fear that the Wall Street Bears are constantly trying to gin up is really just guys “talking their book”. First, traders view the fact that the unemployment rate actually fell in a month when only 88,000 jobs were added, as if everyone had just given up looking for a job. What they hardly ever mention is that 300,000 boomers  Every Month are reaching retirement age, with fairly decent pensions and good Social Security Benefits.No wonder many of them are “leaving the workforce.” That’s what “Social Security” means. And in a few months at least half of those people’s positions will have to be replaced every month. Not everyone reaching 65 can or will retire, but we will witness a big transition in the workforce from the Boomers to the Millenials, and that in itself will change the way business is done.

That was also remarked upon by Teixeira.

By the end of the 20th century, more technological advances had been made in the previous hundred years than in all of history before 1900.  There is no good reason to believe that this breakneck pace will slow in the 21stcentury, since we are just on the verge of mastering knowledge gleaned from technological revolutions in three interwined areas: computer science, biomolecular science/engineering, and quantum physics.  Indeed, as we transition from an era where we have discovered the basic laws and building blocks in these fields to an era where we apply that knowledge, the pace of innovation, if anything, may accelerate.

We think we are seeing this same acceleration happen in the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. All of this is counter to the End of the World Crowd, filled with idiots like David Stockman.

So here is my advice. Stop obsessing with the end of world theme. Stop reading the doom and gloom books, Stop buying gold. Stop trading in and out of stocks every time you get scared (like Friday morning). Invest in companies you think are innovative and have a long term plan and pay dividends. And stick with them. I can assure you, Groupon does not have a real long term plan. Apple does.

In your politics, work with candidates that want to build a world of justice and peace. Not with ones who want to scare you that a vote for the other party will mean the end of the world as we know it.

Posted in Economics, Futurism | Tagged , , , , | 32 Comments

Uncle Chump

As I warned a month ago, President Obama overplayed the scare tactics leading up to the Sequester. It now appears that the large polling advantage Obama had over the Republicans on the issue of the economy has vanished in the last month. As I wrote last month the protestations that the economy if the Sequester went through would collapse were hollow.

To say that an $85 billion cut out of a $3.7 Trillion budget is hardly cause for alarm. After the military budget doubled in 8 years under both Bush and Obama, reducing the Pentagon budget by 6% hardly qualifies for endangering our national security. This kind of scare talk should be left to John McCain and Lindsay Graham and will only backfire on the President when it turns out that the sky did not fall after the Sequester went through. Anyone who has run a business–big or small–knows that taking 5% out of a budget can be done without killing the enterprise.

Democrats have to be very careful they don’t get themselves in the position of defending Big Government against a natural reform movement that goes beyond party labels.Andrew Kohut wrote an amazing analysis of the Republican’s Presidential problems on Friday. He made it clear that the right wing media has painted the party into a corner, but he also noted the unique blend of opinion that was expressed in the November election.

Voters generally agreed with the GOP that a smaller government is preferable to a larger, activist one, and therefore they disapproved of Obamacare. However, exit polls showed popular support for legalizing same-sex marriage and giving illegal immigrants opportunities for citizenship.

This combination of conservative and liberal views is typical. To win, both parties must appeal to the mixed values of the electorate. But it will be very hard for the Republican Party, given the power of the staunch conservatives in its ranks.

What is so fascinating is that there is a natural constituency for a real reform movement that crosses party lines. Continue reading

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Two India’s

I’ve now been in India for a week. Three days at the big Bollywood Conference (Frames 2013) in Mumbai, followed by three days in the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges. The two worlds are so far apart that I could have been on different planets. This is my first experience of India, so what follows is a sort of stream of consciousness post.

Mumbai is a big confident city with some of the wealthiest men in India building houses that would have embarrassed the Maharajas for their opulence. I heard that there are more than 100 members of Parliament worth over $1 billion. This may of course be an urban myth,but the perception that the powerful live in a different world seems well founded. Of course this is no different than the U.S., but what does stand out is the understanding that India is a very young democracy. From the point of view of the film makers I met in Mumbai, basic notions of freedom of speech are constantly trumped by the anger felt from certain (often religious) groups who feel offended by the new sensibilities flowing from young secular voices. Every state in India seems to have a different political make up and the politics reminds one of Israel, in which small right wing religious parties have outsized influence. Thus a film may be censored in one state and a hit in another. As a young former student of mine remarked, it’s quite easy for a populist firebrand to get a thousand people riled up about some rather trivial outrage.
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By contrast, the life on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi seems not to have changed much from the first millennium. Every night the fires of the funeral pires burn until daybreak. The smell of sandalwood drifts out over the water and there are no tears from the relatives who come to say goodbye. My amazing guide Aman Choudhary says that is because life and Moksha live side by side in this pace he calls Kashi. Moksha could perhaps be compared to the Buddhist notion of Nirvana. If your life in this world ends in ashes on the banks of the Ganges, you don’t have to return. I guess what got to me most was the joy in the faces of the pilgrims as they plunged themselves in the Ganges for the first time in their life. Some of them had journeyed for three days by train and had little more than the clothes on their backs. But their faith was still strong.

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I don’t know how India is going to resolve the worlds of Mumbai and Kashi. Perhaps they never will. But close to the banks of the river was a Mosque and the Muslims and the Hindus seemed to coexist with ease. I know there are many battles elsewhere in the country, but in this religous city, there is peace. Farther outside of town was the Stupa commemorating the place where Buddha preached his first sermon. Thirty monks from Thailand stood before a magnificent 5th Century Buddha and chanted. I fixed my eyes on the gentle smile of the Buddha, and was pulled by the chants back in time. The worlds of reality TV, Internet Privacy and dystopian fears faded away.

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